The Avengers

Written by Anna Harrison

In these retrospectives, Anna will be looking back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing context around the films, criticizing them, pointing out their groundwork for the future, and telling everyone her favorite scene, because her opinion is always correct and therefore her favorite scene should be everyone’s favorite scene. Avengers, assem— wait, not yet, that comes later.

80/100

Take a moment, if you will, to go back to summer of 2012. I was 13 years old, about to enter eighth grade and be at the top of the middle school food chain, when my sister dragged me to see The Avengers against my will. I was an intellectual, I protested, who didn’t want to see some dumb superhero movie. I had taste.

Well, all those complaints died pretty quickly, and here I am almost a decade later, still invested (perhaps overly so) in these dumb superhero movies. 

The Avengers was a cultural phenomenon. It was ubiquitous, it was unavoidable; references dripped from everyone’s lips, memes were spawned, records were broken. For a period, it was the third-highest grossing movie of all time, and still stands at a very comfortable eighth place. It transformed the burgeoning Marvel Cinematic Universe into a fully-fledged monstrosity, cementing Marvel’s theatrical and cultural dominance; for many, this would become their Star Wars. It was Big in a way that no one could have predicted. The Avengers proved that the previous films weren’t simply flashes in a pan, and that Marvel was here to stay​​—like it or not.

In hindsight, it seems obvious that it would work, now that we have three other Avengers movies under our belt, but at the time, it was risky: there was every chance that these characters, when thrown in a room together, would refuse to gel. This wasn’t the self-contained Spider-Man trilogy, nor was it the X-Men movies, which came with a pre-formed team. This was something new, a grand cinematic gamble that had every chance of crashing and burning. A Russian assassin, a World War II veteran, a wealthy playboy, a man with anger issues, a guy with a bow and arrow, and a Norse god all walk onto a helicarrier—it sounds like the setup to a bad punchline. On top of that, at the time of production, both Thor and Captain America hadn’t come out in theaters yet. No one knew how audiences would receive these characters or the more outlandish aspects of these movies, but The Avengers hinged upon them; if their respective movies did poorly, there was nothing Marvel could do.

But somehow, impossibly, it all worked. How?

It certainly helps that we had five solo movies to establish each character beforehand by the time of The Avengers’ release. Audiences knew Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson). If you watched the previous MCU films, you were automatically invested in the stakes of this one—even more so, now that you were watching your favorite characters interact. 

Still, even if you walked in with no prior knowledge (as I did), the movie carefully takes its time to reestablish its characters in the opening third. We are reacquainted with S.H.I.E.L.D. boss Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), who have been working with scientist Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) to uncover the secrets of the Tesseract, last seen falling into the ocean at the end of Captain America: The First Avenger. When Loki (Tom Hiddleston) arrives through a portal in space powered by the Tesseract and begins wreaking havoc, putting S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner, first glimpsed in Thor but given a tiny bit more to do here), aka Hawkeye, under mind control, Fury decides it’s time to finally activate the Avengers Initiative, first mentioned in the end credits scene of Iron Man

So, Fury goes to collect the de-iced Captain America, who has been working out his feelings of loss on sandbags at the gym. (I have a very distinct memory of rewatching The Avengers for my 14th birthday party with all of my friends and having a lightbulb go off in my brain during this scene. There were several pause requests, for no particular reason.) Coulson gets sent to collect Tony in his new Stark Tower, and Natasha is dispatched to India to find Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo).

Ruffalo is at a disadvantage here: all the other key players have already been introduced in prior movies, and while Bruce Banner had his own movie, Ruffalo did not, and taking over for another actor midstream is never easy. However, even despite this, Ruffalo immediately puts his own stamp on Hulk; his Banner is simultaneously kinder, sadder, and more frightening than Norton’s, making him quite a bit more interesting. When he later says the now-oft-memed line, “That’s my secret, Cap. I’m always angry,” you buy it.

Everyone boards the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier to apprehend Loki, who has been setting himself up as humanity’s savior. “The bright lure of freedom diminishes your life’s joy in a mad scramble for power, for identity,” he informs the crowd. Where Loki in Thor was a rather tortured figure, here he becomes a full-fledged villain, trying to become Earth’s fascistic ruler in order to assuage his own insecurities and ego. It’s enormous fun, and Hiddleston is solid as always. The Avengers stop his plan and bring Loki aboard the helicarrier, meeting Thor in the process (so much for being stranded on Asgard with a broken Rainbow Bridge), and then we are well and truly off to the races now that everyone is in the same room.

Much of the credit for Avengers’ success has to go to director and writer Joss Whedon; even with all the gross allegations against him that have come to light, it is still thanks to him that The Avengers works as well as it does. While these accusations should be treated with the utmost seriousness (and are made even worse by the fact that Whedon built his initial career by positioning himself as a feminist icon with works like Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Whedon was the director who truly solidified the MCU, and he did it well—though depending on your view of the MCU at large, his work in making it a cultural juggernaut may just be another strike against him. His fast-paced dialogue keeps things from getting too bogged down, and his obvious love for these characters shines through with enthusiasm; it’s a comic book movie made by a comic book nerd, but one still accessible to everyone.

Read More of Anna’s Ongoing Marvel Retrospective Series Here

Marvel has come under criticism for having too many quips and jokes thrown around, robbing certain scenes of any emotional impact; while the amount of jokes per film actually vary wildly (think of Captain America: The Winter Soldier versus Thor: Ragnarok), it seems that tendency largely originated from Whedon in The Avengers. Sure, Tony has a snide comment for everything in his solo outings, but here the quips come a mile a minute. While Whedon would overplay this in Avengers: Age of Ultron, here the gags work, by and large; they help establish a repartee between characters who previously had no interaction with each other, and the awkwardness of some of these interjections (“I do! I understood that reference”) only serves to highlight the awkwardness of the characters as they are thrust into this unfamiliar situation. Plus, they can be pretty damn funny: “[Loki] is of Asgard and he is my brother.” “He killed 80 people in two days.” “He’s adopted.” Worthy of a chuckle, at least.

The best thing about Avengers isn’t the big fight scenes (though those certainly can be a blast), it’s watching all of these actors and characters bounce off each other. Tony tries his hardest to push Bruce’s buttons, Thor watches everything with a certain level of amusing bemusement, Natasha rolls her eyes at all this posturing. The rapid-fire Whedon dialogue works like gangbusters, and he manages to give each character in his ensemble cast individual moments even in the team scenes.

The only thing that mars the more character-driven beats is Steve: he functions too much like a polished Boy Scout here, with none of the recklessness and smartassery that was present in Captain America: The First Avenger. Steve spends most of The First Avenger lying to his superiors and breaking rules, but here he berates Tony for investigating S.H.I.E.L.D.’s shady business? I’m not buying it. Whedon opts for the oversimplified, caricatured Steve Rogers, an easier version of a character that should be far more complex than what this script gives him. It stands out even more upon rewatch when there are more movies to compare against, movies where Steve Rogers continually flouts the chain of command to follow his own largely unerring moral compass. Steve is unmoored and set adrift in time, but there are better ways to play that up than an overreliance on his apparent old fashionedness.

Still, even with that misfire, the banter in The Avengers is just fun. You feel like a kid in a candy store, but like all your favorite candies had combined into one great delicious candy. (I’m not great at metaphors.) The film is at its best when foregrounding character over spectacle; the emphasis on the people behind the masks, the shields, the hammers, is what has given Marvel its staying power in the cultural consciousness and what made The Avengers a phenomenon in the first place. Mindless blockbusters are a dime a dozen, but rarer are the ones where you genuinely worry about a character’s safety, or where their deaths can make theaters full of grown men and women cry (see: Endgame). That’s what sets The Avengers apart. When all these characters come together for the first time, you remember it in a way you don’t remember Transformers. The Avengers may be a dumb superhero movie, but it’s one anchored by a beating heart.

But, of course, we can’t stay in character land forever: this is a superhero movie, after all, and so we need some big fights.

Several things happen all at once: the gang discovers that S.H.I.E.L.D. has secretly been building weapons of mass destruction (a government organization up to no good in a Marvel film? Say it ain’t so!), a verbal fight erupts in the science lab between everyone, and the brainwashed Hawkeye attacks the helicarrier. This spurs our heroes into action, but by then, Coulson has died (apparently), Thor and Bruce have been grounded (but separately), and Loki has escaped. Finally, this disparate group of people realizes that they need to work together.

What follows is just an excuse to have your favorite comic book heroes go and punch things. The Battle of New York (as it’s known in-universe) could certainly stand to be shaved down several minutes, and the alien Chitauri suffer from bland-generic-evil-henchmen-in-Marvel-movies syndrome. The Avengers’ final act is its weakest: no matter how cool it might be to see Hulk smash some bad guys, the fight against these nameless alien hordes goes on for too long. 

But damn if that circle shot of the assembled team with Alan Silvestri’s now-iconic theme swelling in the background doesn’t inspire a quiet little fist pump. We’ve had the setup in the previous five movies; here is the payoff. And it works. 

The Avengers is the first real Marvel movie: not just an action movie, or a superhero movie, but first and foremost a Marvel movie. It establishes the fun, zippy tone that by and large dominates the MCU. It—and I don’t think I’m exaggerating here, given just how enormous Marvel has become—starts an empire. Without the rousing success of The Avengers, the MCU might have fizzled and waned; with its triumph (your mileage may vary on how pretentious you think the use of that word is here), Marvel put its stamp on the collective cultural consciousness in a way not seen for a long time. Within the span of four years, Marvel transformed from a struggling studio forced to sell its best assets just to keep afloat to a pop culture juggernaut—so what’s next?

Groundwork: Marvel has no big master plan; rather, they plant seeds wherever they can in the hopes that some of them might one day germinate. None of these were planned from day one, lest the whole ship sink, but the seeds germinated nonetheless:

  • What’s up, Thanos?
  • Loki’s scepter contains the Mind Stone, and will next be seen in the hands of Hydra as they use it to grant powers to Wanda and Pietro Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson).
  • That whole scene between Loki and Natasha provides a lot of groundwork for Black Widow. “Dreykov’s daughter” becomes not just a throwaway line but a significant plot point, and Natasha will repeat tactics she used on Loki with Ray Winstone’s Dreykov, including her iconic “thank you for your cooperation” line. It doesn’t work as well the second time around, though, and feels a bit lazy. Oh, well.
  • “This is just like Budapest all over again” also gets addressed in Black Widow. (Before the ill-fated Black Widow/Hulk romance and Hawkeye’s farm family in Age of Ultron, a thousand pieces of fanfiction spawned from that single line.)
  • The clock on Grand Central Station gets destroyed in this film and in subsequent outings gets replaced by a monument to first responders to the Chitauri invasion.
  • Coulson’s death will begin a whole #CoulsonLives movement online, eventually resulting in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., where Clark Gregg reprised his role for seven seasons. (Though he wasn’t playing Coulson all those seasons, and in fact plays a Life Model Decoy—first mentioned in The Avengers by Tony—in season seven. It gets complicated.) The cellist that he mentions to Tony here will also show up in season one, played by Whedon alum Amy Acker. 
  • The World Security Council that repeatedly frustrates Nick Fury in this via the Marvel version of Zoom will pop up in person in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
  • Gideon Malick (Powers Boothe), a member of the World Security Council, will appear in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (including a younger version played by Cameron Palatas) and be unmasked as a Hydra agent. In fact, there are lots of Malick family members working for Hydra. This probably isn’t canon anymore, but as Kevin Feige has not come out and directly said that S.H.I.E.L.D. isn’t canon, I will cling to it.
  • Enver Gjokaj, another frequent Whedon collaborator, plays an NYPD officer here; he’ll go on to play Daniel Sousa in Agent Carter and, later, S.H.I.E.L.D., leading to a lot of different theories about this officer, but he turned out to be just a random cop and not related to Sousa at all. 

Anna’s Favorite Scene: Tony wheedles Bruce in the lab about the whole Hulk situation, producing what the internet will dub the “Science Bros” and revealing quite a lot about both characters involved. Or the Loki and Natasha interrogation, because Hiddleston is so great and the twist is fantastic (the first time around, at least).

MCU Ranking: 1. The Avengers, 2. Captain America: The First Avenger, 2. Iron Man, 3. Thor, 4. Iron Man 2, 5. The Incredible Hulk

The Avengers Trailer

The Avengers is currently available to rent and purchase on most digital storefronts, and is streaming on Disney+.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

Captain America: The First Avenger

Written by Anna Harrison

In these retrospectives, Anna will be looking back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing context around the films, criticizing them, pointing out their groundwork for the future, and telling everyone her favorite scene, because her opinion is always correct and therefore her favorite scene should be everyone’s favorite scene. Time to punch some Nazis!

75/100

Captain America has recently come under fire for a new comic from Ta-Nehisi Coates featuring the star-spangled man with a plan that criticizes the American Dream, with superhero actors Dean Cain and Kevin Sorbo accusing Marvel of politicizing Captain America. (This also comes after the villainous Red Skull was depicted with similarities to Jordan Peterson.) Yet, no matter where you stand on the controversies that have followed the Cap comics, from his conception Captain America has been a political construct: Joe Simon and Jack Kirby created Cap and had him punching Nazis in the face even before America had entered World War II. Pointedly, Cap has always tried to stand for what America should be, not what it is or has been (except for that arc where a Cap imposter was a Nazi, which caused no drama whatsoever). 

In the MCU, the movies have had to refrain from anything other than sweeping statements like, “Nazis bad,” or “government surveillance bad,” as they cater to a larger audience than the comics, but the spirit of Steve Rogers’ comic origins are still visible enough throughout his cinematic tenure, starting with the pleasantly old-fashioned Captain America: The First Avenger. (It’s also a lot easier to avoid issues of overly aggressive American exceptionalism when your bad guys are literal Nazis.) 

Part of its winsome charm comes from the 1940s setting, making The First Avenger Marvel’s first period piece—though don’t conflate it with the high-falutin dramas that usually populate the genre; it’s still first and foremost a superhero movie. Director Joe Johnston had already balanced these genres in The Rocketeer, so he seemed a natural fit for this MCU entry, and proves himself more than up to the job of balancing the time period with superheroics. It’s all very Indiana Jones. (While Johnston would only direct this film, screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely would become mainstays of the MCU.)

America has entered World War II, and Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers is raring to go fight the good fight but is hampered by his small frame (Leander Deeny acted as Evans’ body double for the first part of the movie, and the head grafting usually looks decent) and litany of health issues. His childhood friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) has already been drafted, and Steve’s frustration has grown to where he has begun to lie on his enlistment forms in an effort to somehow join up. His determination to help in any way he can attracts the attention of Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci), a German scientist helping the Allies’ war effort by providing them with a serum to create a super soldier. 

Steve gets whisked away to Camp Lehigh in New Jersey, where he meets the prickly colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) and the no-nonsense Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). Marvel often casts unknowns in leading roles, or, if not unknowns, at least someone unexpected; in this case, Chris Evans was mostly known for romcoms and non-MCU Marvel’s Fantastic Four duds. To compensate for their lesser-known leads, the MCU will populate the roles around their heroes with big names: Jeff Bridges in Iron Man, Anthony Hopkins and Rene Russo in Thor, and, in The First Avenger, Tommy Lee Jones and Stanely Tucci.

These casting choices generally pay off, giving the audience someone new to fawn over while the veterans keep the performance quality high. Here, Tucci and Jones give some of the most memorable one-off Marvel performances; Erskine in particular, while only appearing in the first third of the movie, has stayed fresh in the minds of audiences: he is, after all, the one who lays down the ethos of Captain America: “Not a perfect soldier, but a good man.”

This isn’t to say that The First Avenger’s leading man falls short—not by any means. Chris Evans, in addition to being ridiculously good looking, is ridiculously charming; it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role, though he initially turned down the role. Evans’ Steve is someone we all want to root for, representing that ideal American gumption and gusto without any of the country’s baggage. Yet while it could be easy to paint Steve Rogers as a goody two-shoes, as someone with a stick up his ass who probably goes to church each Sunday and buttons up his shirt all the way, the character we are presented in the MCU, and the one we are shown by Evans, is much more interesting than that (though Joss Whedon will fall slightly into caricature in The Avengers, unfortunately): the first thing Steve does in The First Avenger is lie. He lies on an enlistment form to boost his chances of helping the war effort, so the lie isn’t a nefarious one, but Steve still consistently bends or outright breaks the rules to follow his own largely unfailing moral compass; he has never been one to simply follow orders and do things by the book. He’s smart, too, and not just some tail-wagging Golden Retriever. If not quite as complex as Tony Stark or Loki, Steve still—to quote a certain green ogre—has plenty of layers. Good is not dumb, nor is it boring.

While Steve fails to impress physically, he proves himself worthy of the super soldier serum when he jumps on a grenade (unaware that it’s a dummy) to absorb its explosion while everyone else runs away, convincing even Colonel Phillips that he can handle the responsibility of Erskine’s super soldier serum. Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) arrives to assist, a mirror image of his son: smart, suave, self-important, though with less of the guilt and self-loathing. 

Steve Rogers then gets really, absurdly ripped. If Peggy has already been attracted to his innate goodness, this surely helps that attraction along. 

Unfortunately (though maybe fortunately, so America wouldn’t have a race of blonde-haired, blue-eyed super soldiers…), any chance of recreating this effect is dashed when an agent of Hydra (Richard Armitage, who definitely should get brought back for a bigger MCU role), an offshoot of the Nazis, kills Erskine. Steve, instead of getting to sock Nazis in the jaw on the front lines, is then used as a tool of the government to get more war bonds; his tenure as the government’s dancing monkey gives us a great musical number and a chance to lampoon the government: they stifle the real spirit of America, instead packaging some propagandic patriotic prattle in song and dance and costumes. (Again, this “real spirit of America” is much easier to portray during World War II, with clear-cut bad guys. Later on, it gets a little bit more complicated.)

Only with Peggy’s encouragement does he break out and begin to actually do something with his power. Arnim Zola (Toby Jones) and Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), aka the Red Skull, have been up to no good, capturing Allied forces—including Bucky Barnes—as part of their nefarious work for Hydra, so Steve ditches his role as senator attaché and goes to save his comrades. 

Where Marvel typically tries to tone down some of its comic book origins in order to make the movies more palatable, Red Skull’s design is ripped straight from the comic pages in all its campy, pulpy glory. The preceding MCU movies have all tried to ground themselves even as their subject matter gets more and more outlandish, resulting in something like Thor, which fails to commit fully to its otherworldly premise. The First Avenger marks the first time that Marvel fully embraces its source material: it’s good vs. evil, superhuman vs. superhuman, good old American boy vs. Nazi with a red skull. It throws any pretension away and basks in its absurd comic book glory, a much better movie for it.

To even out the absurdity, we have the very real relationships between the characters. Steve’s close connections with Bucky and the Howling Commandos (Neal McDonough as Dum Dum Dugan, Derek Luke as Gabe Jones, Kenneth Choi as Jim Morita, Bruno Ricci as Jacques Dernier, and JJ Feild as James Falsworth aka the superhero Union Jack, though only a normal guy in the films) give him an anchor; his relationship with Bucky in particular will remain important in the MCU and spark the imaginations of thousands of Tumblr and Twitter users, though it’s not given quite enough heft here.

The real heart of the movie, however, is Steve’s relationship with Peggy. Despite only being developed for one film, this relationship has proved to be one of the strongest in the MCU (perhaps too strong, but more on that with Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Avengers: Endgame), and due to Hayley Atwell’s vibrant portrayal, Peggy received her own spinoff show, Agent Carter, and appears in Winter Soldier, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ant-Man, Avengers: Endgame, and two episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Peggy and Steve serve as the film’s beating heart, giving the ending a gut punch and real emotional heft that the MCU films have largely lacked so far. It’s a testament to the depth of these characters that they can carry such weight in a movie where the main villain looks like this.

Upon revisiting The First Avenger, it’s remarkable how well the film has aged; while Iron Man deserves props (or boos, depending on your view of the MCU as an entity) for kickstarting the MCU, it feels largely rote when compared against the slew of other films that come after. The First Avenger, on the other hand, has a unique setting, and while it still lays the foundation for future entries, the film is still largely self-contained. Reverberations from its events can be found all over the MCU, but it’s less concerned with setup for the future and more so with payoff for the now, making it a satisfying entry on its own. It can get a little too silly at times, but it’s always fun and upbeat, a reminder of what Captain America can look like without the 21st century cynicism he becomes riddled with in later entries. Looking back after ten years, this may hold up better than Iron Man—this is a spicy and hot take, I know—and certainly helped reset the trajectory of the MCU after some more lackluster entries, setting them on firm ground before they take a big risk with The Avengers.

Groundwork: Marvel has no big master plan; rather, they plant seeds wherever they can in the hopes that some of them might one day germinate. None of these were planned from day one, lest the whole ship sink, but the seeds germinated nonetheless:

  • Hey, it’s the Tesseract with an Infinity Stone inside. Wonder if that will be important later.
  • Hey, the Red Skull used aforementioned Infinity Stone and got sucked up into space. Wonder if he will show up later. (He will, but not as Hugo Weaving, who has been open about the pay disputes with Marvel that led to Ross Marquand appearing as Red Skull in Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame.)
  • Hey, no more super soldier serum exists. Wonder if anyone will make knockoffs and that will be important later.
  • Before the Hydra base is blown up, Zola rescues some blueprints for what looks like a robot, a nod to his comic look; in Winter Soldier, they will adapt this so that Zola lives through a computer program as a head on a screen.
  • Boy, sure hope hiring Zola and other Hydra members to help the United States doesn’t bite anyone in the ass.
  • There’s a common saying that “the only people who stay dead in comics are Bucky, Jason Todd, and Uncle Ben.” That has now been whittled down to only Uncle Ben, as Bucky gets revived as the Winter Soldier by Ed Brubaker, a fate that will befall our filmic Bucky as well (and Jason Todd is also alive now, coming back as the Red Hood in DC comics). No one knew at the time if The First Avenger would get a sequel or if it would even adapt the Winter Soldier arc, so they filmed two versions of Bucky’s fall: one where Sebastian Stan had a green screen sleeve on his arm, and one without. Though they ended up using the latter, Bucky will still appear sans an arm in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
  • Howard and the Howling Commandos show up in Agent Carter, and some Howling Commandos show up in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. with Peggy. Will I be able to bring up S.H.I.E.L.D. in every retrospective? Stay tuned!
  • Kenneth Choi, who played Howling Commando Jim Morita, shows up in Spider-Man: Homecoming as Mortia’s grandson.

Anna’s Favorite Scene: Dr. Erskine and Steve have a chat before the procedure, producing that classic MCU line: “Not a perfect soldier, but a good man.”

MCU Ranking: 1. Captain America: The First Avenger (I welcome your Twitter arguments), 2. Iron Man, 3. Thor, 4. Iron Man 2, 5. The Incredible Hulk

Captain America: The First Avenger Trailer

Captain America: The First Avenger is currently available to rent and purchase on most digital storefronts, and is streamable on Disney+.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.